Writing a literature review can be a deceptively tricky task, especially if it is your first time writing one. Asking yourself the question; ‘what actually is a literature review?’ is perfectly reasonable and a useful place to start.
The most critical step towards writing any good literature review is determining the particular type of review you intend to undertake; different types serve different purposes and choosing the appropriate one is fundamental to achieving your goal. Some sources in fact suggest there may be over 49 different types of review (Booth, 2016).
Thankfully, when conceptualising a literature review in nursing and midwifery, discussion generally trends towards one of a few evidence synthesis methodologies. That is, you may be considering a systematic review (of which there are multiple variations, but which are beyond the scope of this article), a scoping review, a rapid review or perhaps a ‘traditional’ literature review.
Although all four of these review types can informally be considered ‘literature reviews’ (as they dictate a process by which one might conduct a ‘review of the literature’) the review types differ in their approach and intended application. Munn and colleagues suggest a systematic review is most appropriate where the researcher is looking to identify all available evidence in relation to a specific question or set of questions (as noted above, picking the appropriate variant of systematic review is then necessary; this choice is based on the type of question/s and evidence to be examined). In contrast, a scoping review is appropriate where the goal of the review is to describe the scope and nature of the literature in relation to a given topic (Munn etal. 2018).
Both systematic reviews and scoping reviews have established guidelines and an author must adhere to these when undertaking the review (Moher et al. 2009, Tricco et al. 2018). This ensures the reporting and findings of these reviews (that may go on to inform practice, policy, or research), is methodologically sound and reproducible. Like good scientific experiments both systematic reviews and scoping reviews must clearly report their steps and approach so that they may be repeated – this is usually first done in an a-priori protocol– so both types of review technically have two separate parts; a protocol that focuses on methods and a review that focuses on results.
Rapid reviews however, do not yet have an established standard of conduct, and reporting and definitions vary.
Typically, a rapid review may be considered a more comprehensive review (eg. systematic or scoping) with shortcuts; and is most appropriately undertaken where the authors’ capacity to undertake a more comprehensive review is limited by financial, resource, or time pressures and when the reproducibility and comprehensiveness of the review is not critical to the overall goal of the review (Munn et al. 2018).
This may occur when efficient guidance for end users is required but time is critical, or as a means to inform a future more comprehensive review. Well conducted and reported rapid reviews may be useful resources, but in most cases should not be considered interchangeable with more rigorous and comprehensive reviews.
All three of the review types described so far are similar in that their inclusion criteria must generally be predetermined; papers from literature are included if they meet these criteria, which then limits bias in reporting- a key feature of systematic and scoping reviews (note however, that skipping the protocol may be one of the ‘short-cuts’ for a rapid review).
In contrast, traditional literature reviews are not required to follow any particular standard and are largely driven by author bias – they include the papers that the author wants to include, not only those that fit predetermined inclusion criteria. The findings of a literature review therefore should not be solely relied upon to inform practice or policy. That is not to say that traditional reviews do not have their place, they may be conducted where there is a non-critical need to better understand the body of literature relevant to a topic, or to inform a position already held in regard to that topic. As such, they can be useful in providing an introduction and possibly a brief, but limited discussion of a given topic.
Overall, the key to writing a good literature review, and critical first step, is understanding the type of literature review that is best suited to your purpose. In the case of review types where a standard has been provided, it is then simply a matter of following the steps. Where no standard has yet been developed, similar principles still apply and so, using these existing standards to guide the development of your review may be a useful method towards getting started.
Booth, A. 2016. Fifty shades of review [Online]. EAHIL. Available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sdcURH22O8 [Accessed May 18 2020].
Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG & The Prisma Group 2009. Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses: The PRISMA Statement. Ann Intern Med, 151, 264-269.
Munn, Z., Peters, M. D. J., Stern, C., Tufanaru, C., McArthur, A. & Aromataris, E. 2018. Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 18, 143.
Tricco, A., Lillie, E., Zarin, W., O’Brien, K., Colquhoun, H., Levac, D., Moher, D., Peters, M., Horsley, T., Weeks, L., Hemple, S. & ET AL 2018. Prisma extension for scoping reviews (PRISMA-ScR): checklist and explanation. Ann Intern Med, 169, 467-473
Casey Marnie is the ANMF Federal Office Research Assistant
Dr Micah DJ Peters is the ANMF Federal Office National Policy Research Adviser and Editor in-Chief of AJAN
Both are based in the Rosemary Bryant AO Research Centre, School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of South Australia.